Becoming a Biker in L.A.: Buying A Bike

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In the third part of DnA’s series on becoming a biker in L.A., Caroline buys the perfect two-wheeler with the help of friends and a local bike store.

bike at Coco's Variety store
Image by Coco’s Variety Store (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I’ve bought a bike, and I love it.

But before I talk about the bike I chose, I want to outline the process of buying one, because I found that if riding a bike is easy, buying one is extremely complicated. Whatever happened to “no need to reinvent the wheel?”

For advice, I had turned to my good friend Devin McCutchen, who I consider a very brave cyclist. He used to commute from his apartment in Hollywood to UCLA (including that treacherous stretch of Wilshire Blvd. near the 405) until he moved to San Francisco last year.

He owns three bikes, each of which he uses for different purposes–one for commuting and carrying stuff, one for speed, and one for leisurely riding. He’s the sort of person that fixes up his bikes for fun and is always looking for ways to make improvements on them.  Just the bike nerd I needed.

Bike Overload

The process of choosing a bike, Devin said, is akin to buying a car in terms of how detailed it can be. “It’s kind of like buying a Honda,” he laughed. He suggested I look for a number of features on my bike including: specific attachments for racks and fenders, frame pumps, a bike rack, a comfortable seat (and one that is not easily removable because of theft), fenders in case it rains, sturdy tires, lights, clips for the cable housing on the frame and an appropriate gear ratio (high gear ratio for hills- low gear for normal riding) among a long laundry list of suggestions. For those not fluent in bikespeak, this advice was a little overwhelming.

Then there’s the accessories: He said I should think about getting a pannier, a bag designed specifically for bikes in case I have to carry a bunch of stuff, reflective clothing, a helmet, a U-lock, a tire patch kit, and a pump. Oh and in case I have to transport my bike around, I ought to also get an attachment for my car. And I thought that cycling was supposed to help me save money!

Devin also directed me to a number of helpful resources. He showed me a very informative, but primitive website by Sheldon Brown, the late bicycle mechanic, author and enthusiast. If you can stomach the basic HTML, it’s a really comprehensive site for  beginner and seasoned cyclists alike. He also emphatically recommended I check out Elly Blue’s book, Everyday Bicycling.

To be honest though, I thought any more research would further fuel my procrastination. So I thought I’d bite the bullet and start going to bike shops to test out a few.

The Quest for a Bicycle Begins! 

The first bike shop I went to was in Highland Park, called Raffis Bicycles. They recommended a hybrid because it’s a multi-purpose bike that combines features of road bikes, touring bikes and mountain bikes. I liked it, but felt uneasy about the idea of buying a bike at the first shop I visited.

One day when I happened to be in Silver Lake I then looked up bike shops in the area on Yelp and Golden Saddle Cyclery was close by and had excellent reviews. Not well versed in what $$ meant for bike shops, as I do for restaurants, I just hoped they’d have something moderately priced.

I hoped wrong. I went in, told a bearded guy working there named Kyle that I was looking to buy a bike. He asked me what my budget was, and he said that within my price range I ought to buy a used bike because they only sell new bikes that range from $450-$3,000. Again, I thought cycling was supposed to save money! He recommended a place nearby called Coco’s Variety Shop.

I was a little disheartened that I’d visited two shops with nothing to show for it but headed to Coco’s Variety Store, about two miles away.

photo (3)

My  third attempt at finding a bicycle was the charm. When my GPS alerted me I had reached my destination on Riverside Drive I thought I entered in the wrong address because all I could see was a Prada sign.

It turns out the shop does lie within the Prada facade and what’s inside couldn’t be further from haute couture. The Prada sign is intended as a joke, by the way.

Coco’s Variety Store is a sort of one-stop shop for all of your bicycle needs. They sell both used and new bicycles and it’s also a repair shop. It’s a place that celebrates the Maker Movement, a DIY ethos best embodied by the shop’s habit of fixing up old bicycles for resale.

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This place is simply fantastic– it’s the kind of shop politicians hope their constituents imagine when they drone on about how much they love small businesses. It’s small, it’s cute, it has a community vibe with what seem like regulars drifting in and out of the store and most importantly—the staff really know their stuff.

I spent about an hour and a half with Jonathan Raspa (pictured above), the store manager, asking him just about every ridiculous and stupid question I had, and he kindly obliged.

Choosing a Bike that Fits

He showed me how to tell if a bike fits properly. Of course there is more than one theory on this and you will hear those when you go buy your bike.

Jonathan also outlined everything from what bikes work specific muscles to what attachment options I have if I want to bring back a load of groceries with me on two wheels. He told me I could ride pretty much anything given that my commute is short and lacks any major hills. Road bikes, he explained, are the ones with the drop handlebars where you see riders bent over as they ride by. These bikes are great for speed, something I’m not interested in.

Cruisers, on the other hand, have the cyclist sitting way back. They are a bit clunkier, and perhaps best suited to leisurely riding on the weekend. He showed me a few mountain bikes that had been converted for street use that he said use more arm and back muscles riding up a hill.

Image from Linus's website
Image from Linus’s website(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Decisions, Decisions. So Many Bikes, How Can One Choose?   

He let me test three 3-speed bikes, and I took three fifteen minute rides on each of the bikes he recommended. I tested a used Hard Rock mountain bike converted for city riding, a used 3-speed city bike and a brand new Linus Dutchi 3. He said I shouldn’t need more than three gears because my commute is relatively flat. If there are major hills in your commute, gears are a very important feature in choosing a bike and, as with all the other choices, depend on a large number of variables, including (according to Sheldon Brown):

  • Your weight
  • Your strength and endurance
  • How far you’ll be riding in a day
  • How hard you’re willing to push
  • How much baggage you’ll be carrying
  • The steepness of the terrain
  • The nature of the road surface
  • What kind of riding (urban stop and go/rural/touring/racing…)
  • How much effort you are willing to put into maintaining your bicycle

Quality over quantity

It turns out the total number of gears is not as important as many people suppose and upon riding the three bikes, I could tell immediately that three gears would be sufficient for my needs. In terms of how the bikes worked generally, I liked them all. I especially loved the Linus; it was incredibly comfortable and it rode very smoothly. The European fantasy that the brand evokes with the promise that it “makes you feel like you’re in an old French movie” may have also put a spell on me, but it was simply too expensive.

The Purchase

I returned a few weeks later and bought a bike similar to the city bike I first tested. It’s a used three speed English Raleigh vintage step-through– a city bike in layman’s terms. City bikes are designed for frequent short trips, a perfect fit for my commute. I chose it because it was comfortable owing partially to the upright handlebars, the frame fit me perfectly, it was (almost) in my price range and Jonathan assured me it would fit my needs. Blue is also one of my favorite colors.

Lucetta ~ Magnetic Bike Lights from pizzolorusso on Vimeo.

The Attachments

For now I decided not to get any special attachments so as to see what needs popped up after I started riding.

So far I have a Bern helmet, an Abus lock, Lucetta lights.

The Lucetta lights are petite Italian magnetic lights given me by DnA’s Frances Anderton who found them in a design store in Amsterdam; anyone know where you can find them here? The design is pretty amazing (check it out a video of them here.)

Bern is a helmet brand that is popular for a variety of activities including snowboarding and skiing. They have less ventilation (meaning I’ll have to expect sweaty hair from time to time) than traditional bike helmets, but I feel safer with the harder shell.

When I first asked about locks, the first thing that Jonathan brought up was the quality German engineering of Abus. I bought one of their steel-o-chains because they are more difficult to cut through than a typical U-lock.

I anticipate myself purchasing a rack or a basket in the near future, plus a tire patch kit, pump, first aid kit, reflectors, a stronger headlight and other accessories as my needs become apparent. Of course, I’ll have to learn how to change a tire!

Tips for Buying a Bike (from my humble experience) 

1. Go to a bike shop with a knowledgeable staff. (this is the most important piece of advice.)

2. Have a reasonably flexible price range (but avoid the big box stores that sell cheaper bikes that are prone to problems and are difficult to repair.)

3. Buy the essential accessories.

4. Test it for yourself. Don’t trust a bike shop that doesn’t let you test a bike out of the store for 10-15 minutes.

5. If you want to buy a used bike, look for shops that offer warranties in case something goes wrong.

6. Make sure no component is too easily removable i.e. wheels, seat, etc.

7. If you want to try biking before purchasing a bike, test one out! Santa Monica Bike Center has a bike loaner program that allows you to try out a bike for free for two weeks if you live or work in Santa Monica. Some bike shops also offer rental options. Coco’s Variety Shop for example has a rental program that allows you to deduct part of the rental fee if you decide you want to buy it later.

This is part 3 in a series on Becoming a Biker in Los Angeles. View part 1 and 2 here.

And if all this talk about bikephernalia induces an urge for parody, listen to DnA’s Everything Talks: 2 Bikes